Election dates have just been announced but things already seem to be unravelling for India’s not-so-united Opposition that has sworn to throw out the Narendra Modi government. The first opinion poll post the Pulwama attack suggests that the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, will get close to a majority with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s tally not crossing 150 seats. Stock markets have started rallying on the prospect of Modi’s re-election and the whisper in North India is that the hawa, that palpable momentum leading up to an election, has turned again in favour of the saffron party. It is still too early to conclude, but the Opposition does appear deflated. If this was a tennis match, then the last set certainly has been Modi’s. But then, fortunes do swing around in tennis and a set need not be the match itself.
While Pulwama-Balakot has been the central reason for this reversal, the Opposition’s lethargy hasn’t helped. Firstly, there is no sign of a united Opposition. At a time when voters opposed to the NDA were waiting to see signs of a cohesive electoral strategy and vision, all they have got is an uninspiring silence. Actually, forget cohesion, parties appear to be in a race to disown linkages with other factions in the fabled mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance. The Congress says they don’t want to ally with the Aam Aadmi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party says they won’t tie up with the Congress in any state and even smaller units like Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi have distanced themselves from the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra. The generally feisty Mamata Banerjee has gone silent since the Balakot strike. These aren’t good signs. Voters are watching, maybe even wondering how these parties will arrive at any lasting arrangement after the polls if they cannot even cobble together a basic plan to challenge the government.
Momentum is a strange thing and it turns on a dime. We see it all the time in the big five-setters. A player seems to have the game by the collar and suddenly, out of nowhere, the opponent gets a break of serve, wins a set against the run of play. The player who was leading earlier is so upset that he sulks through the next set and hands the momentum back to his opponent. The Congress party’s actions resemble the player who had the momentum but has let it slip away. All is not lost yet, but may soon be.
Security versus livelihood
Rahul Gandhi has to shed his obsession with the Rafale deal, recognising that it is not going to be the card that trumps Modi. If it had to, it would have been clear by now. The only card he has, and it is a powerful one, is economic distress across the spectrum. This election, as issues go, is now Balakot versus jobs. It is that simple. Modi will project himself as the strong leader who can stand up and protect his nation against its vile Islamic neighbours and that, to a certain kind of voter, is a powerful pitch. Rahul Gandhi has to counter that by asserting that it is livelihood that is as important, if not more, for the average Indian and in that, the Congress will better Modi’s pitiable record. Security versus livelihood, that’s a fair contest, if framed in those terms. There will be other fringe issues – Modi will talk about dynasty, Rahul Gandhi about Rafale and other scams – but those are not central to the debate this time. Yet, the events of the last fortnight do not suggest that the Congress understands it this way. Either, it is deluded, thinking that it has enough momentum to spring a massive surprise with seats, or arrogant that it doesn’t need the support of allies, or simply despondent at its prospects, post Balakot. Or all of these.
Maybe Rahul Gandhi’s acolytes aren’t telling him this, but the recent body language from the Congress is all wrong and it is nudging the party towards another electoral debacle.
It needed a 10-handed goddess to slay the mighty Mahisasura, a lesson the Congress shouldn’t forget. Rahul Gandhi too needs help from women. First, from within his own family. Sonia Gandhi appears to be far shrewder than he is and should now get into the fray and start talking to the other players in the Opposition. Priyanka Gandhi should be doing a rally every day, not occasional cameos. Congress leaders should swallow their pride, though pride for what one isn’t clear, and bow their heads before Mayawati. And before Banerjee. These are powerful orators. A stage in Varanasi shared by Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Mayawati and Banerjee is just the kind of electricity the Opposition is in dire need of. As opposed to each of them sitting on their high horses, trading barbs.
A risky strategy
Even if the Congress and other Opposition parties were to somehow conjure up a show of unity in the weeks leading up to the election, that is not enough to defeat Modi. The reason is that these parties have spent a lot of time telling voters what Modi has done wrong but not how they will set it right. It may be because they don’t know, and are hoping that by running a negative campaign against the NDA they will come out on top. It’s a risky strategy. What voters would ideally have liked to see is a comprehensive Common Minimum Programme that lays out a blueprint to address the country’s job crisis and farm distress. This should have been done long back, but it is still not too late. In the security versus livelihood debate, the voter has to be convinced that the Opposition can deliver on the livelihood promise.
There is another major flaw in the thinking of the regional parties. Somehow, they seem to believe that each of them can beat the BJP on their own turfs and later come together to form a government at the Centre. That may partly explain their reluctance to bond with the Congress. In this, they may be forgetting that on the other side of the net stands not just the BJP but the larger than life Modi, who has spent five years in shaping this as a presidential contest, where the man is bigger than the party. It may work in football, where a team of eleven good players would stand to win against a weak team with the best player in the world, but elections don’t always follow the laws of soccer. A feudal North Indian electorate may easily interpret it as a Modi versus diffused Opposition contest and opt for the strong patriarch. Therefore, to add up previous vote shares of regional parties and arrive at conclusions may not be very clever.
So, this is the fifth and final set in that match of fluctuating fortunes.
In two corners sit the opponents, one’s head hanging from recent setbacks, the other’s upright sensing a kill. If there is to be a comeback, this is the time. Modi knows how to build on momentum, he is practised at that art. And he will too, if the opposition dithers at this juncture. How quickly things have changed. Just a few weeks ago, after late last year’s Assembly election results in three North Indian states, it appeared that the tide had turned against Modi. Now, for all those people who had their hopes raised, all they must be getting is the sense of an ending.
Udayan Mukherjee is a television commentator and author of the novel Dark Circles.